Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I would call it an early form of fan fiction, though scholars refer to it as a feminist and anti-colonial response.
Spoiler Alert: My comments contain spoilers, for both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.
In Jane Eyre, Thornfield Hall has a mysterious secret that is eventually revealed to be a madwoman locked in an upper room, the wife of Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield Hall. Wide Sargasso Sea – is her story.
And a very interesting story. I loved Jane Eyre, but I admit I didn’t give much thought to the madwoman, other than as an obstacle to Jane’s happiness. That’s rather unfair, and I guess Jean Rhys felt the same way. She gave a name: Antoinette Cosway, and a face: a beautiful creole face, and a story to the poor woman.
In the opening portion of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette narrates her childhood in Jamaica. Her family home, once a prosperous plantation, is languishing since the abolition of slavery, and death of her father. Her mother Annette struggles to keep the household intact, but eventually she marries a wealthy Englishman in hopes of restoring the former glory. Things don’t go as planned, and several tragedies drive Anette to madness.
Besides this maternal tendency, Antoinette herself seems at times – just a bit aloof to reality. It will get worse.
Antoinette’s step brother pays a healthy dowry to an Englishman of good breeding and little fortune to marry Antoinette. The gentleman is never named, but it is evident to anyone who has read Jane Eyre to be Edward Rochester.
Antoinette is beautiful and wealthy, so Rochester tries to make a go of it, but quickly begins to have reservations. He speaks to her often of England and notes her flippant response:
‘Oh England, England’ she called back mockingly, and the sound went on and on like a warning I did not choose to hear.
And things deteriorate quickly. Both are unhappy; Antoinette begins a quick descent into madness, and her husband to despair.
Pity. Is there none for me? Tied to a lunatic for life – a drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way.
If I was bound for Hell, let it be Hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best.
And in his despair, he takes her back to England, to lock her away.
I was tired of these people. I disliked their laughter and their tears, their flattery and envy, conceit and deceit. And I hated the place.
Where miserable Antoinette, now called Bertha by her husband, wastes away in an upper room.
So there is still the sound of whispering that I have heard all my life, but these are different voices. ~ Antoinette
It was a compelling read. I felt sympathy and blame for both Rochester and Antoinette. I thought it was going to make Rochester a villain, which would not have been in keeping with his character Jane Eyre. I thought Rhys did a convincing job of explaining how this intelligent man becomes so bitter and despairing. But of course, the greater character development was Antoinette. I’ll have to read Jane Eyre again, with a more sympathetic feeling for the madwoman in the attic.
I give it 3 ½ of 5 stars
I don’t think it would be of much interest on its own – without Jane Eyre. I am intrigued by this technique of one author filling in gaps left by another. It happens with some frequency, but seldom with as much success. In this instance, both novels are considered classics. Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Did you like how Rhys filled in the gaps?